Editor’s Notebook: A Spill Worth Crying Over

June 2010 Vol. 237 No. 6

Jeff Share, Editor

Every night I tear at the sheets, tossing, turning and hoping by some miracle the news will be better in the morning: that BP will have finally regained control of its runaway well that is causing heartache and angst throughout the nation, the Gulf Coast and the petroleum industry.

Instead, this mother of all oil spills becomes even more unbearable as the disaster continues unabated. In my 20 years of energy reporting, I have found the oil and gas industry to be one that is highly proud of its technological achievements in safely providing us with life-empowering fuels. It is a record that most companies can still point to with pride.

Ironically, I joined a well-attended general session focusing on safety at the API’s annual liquids pipeline conference in New Orleans just hours before the Deepwater Horizon blew. The gist of the meeting was that safety needs to be a “core value,” not just a priority. That means never taking safety for granted.

Things were actually looking up for the industry after another down cycle as business signs were improving and President Obama announced significant plans to open much of the offshore to drilling. The repercussions from this catastrophe will be both short and long-term. It’s something I discussed with my friend, Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.

“Long term, we’re in for a period of increased scrutiny and tougher regulation in a couple of areas. One will definitely be in spill response; second will be in systems and the ability to actually go in and intervene in problems that relate to subsea wells; third, some clarification as to the roles and responsibilities both on and off rigs and during emergency response procedures as they might relate to spills.

“It’s been at times a ‘who’s on first’ situation. Part of that is the political game of who’s trying to blame who, but I suspect there will be some clarification of that in the regulatory process as well,” Bullock said, suggesting something akin to the National Transportation Safety Board set up after a plane crash where everyone’s duties are clearly defined.

“Right now, there are so many cooks in the pot that I don’t know that we’ll ever get to the bottom of this,” he said. Instead, we had to bear witness to the ugly spectacle of top executives of BP America, Transocean and Halliburton pointing accusing fingers at each other. Almost as bad has been the tepid response of federal officials (excepting the Coast Guard) who also prefer to play the blame game when they don’t know what to do.

Bullock said there were a series of human and mechanical failures leading to the unthinkable happening: the industry being left without an effective way to get in and cap the well.

“I visit with a lot of very senior people in the industry and this particular case has surprised a lot of them and myself. The fact is everything that we had thought of for years and all the systems that had been in place failed, apparently at the same time.”

There is nothing good that will come out of this tragedy. An industry that has always had an image problem will find itself under even more pressure as they try defending their enormous profits at the same time they complain about increased government scrutiny and regulations.

Perhaps once emotions settle down, we’ll actually have an honest discussion about energy and where oil and gas fit in that equation. Oil and gas exploration and production along with coal mining are inherently dangerous no matter how many safety precautions are required. That’s the price we pay for being able to drive a car, heat and cool our homes and businesses, and turn on a light bulb.

What the industry must remember is this that when you remove resources from the earth, it is your sacred responsibility to leave the planet in at least the same shape you found it, if not better.

Otherwise, you’re not fit to be in this business.

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